At the start of June I began a quest that’s been undertaken by many a New Englander – summiting the 4000-footers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’ve been an avid hiker since my parents introduced me to Mt. Battie and Maiden’s Cliff at a young age, but I’d never broken the 4,000-foot barrier.
In all honesty, I didn’t exactly plan on breaking the 4,000-foot barrier on this hike. A heat wave was rippling through New England the weekend of June 1st, and after a muggy night at Passaconaway Campground on the Kancamagus, spending the better part of the day in 90+ degree heat and humidity didn’t sound like a winning proposition. On top of that, I’d forgotten matches and kindling when I rushed out of work the day before, so breakfast was little more than a bag of trail mix.
Poring over my White Mountain Guide in Lincoln as I sipped a convenience store coffee, the Falling Waters Trail in Franconia Notch seemed a good place to bag a short hike and cool off in the cascades. A mile or two up the waterfalls, a quick dip, then back to the trailhead – easy.
Temperatures were still cool when I started around 7 a.m., and once I got into the rhythm of the trail, my desire to call it a short day quickly ebbed. Falling Waters is a gorgeous trail, with brook crossings, cascades, and a few scrambles. Sitting in the cooling mist of the falls, I decided on a new plan – up the rest of the trail to the top of Little Haystack (4760′), then retrace my steps back down.
You don’t break treeline until just before the summit of Little Haystack, so I was unprepared for the unobstructed 360ª views that awaited when I stepped onto the rocky peak. Despite the threat of a humid haze, the sky was clear as glass in every direction. Clear views across the notch, south to Lincoln and the Kanc, east to Crawford and up to Cannon and northern NH. There was also the magnificent Ridge itself, stretching over the rocky summit of Lincoln and winding out of view. Munching on trail mix and taking in the scenery, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to turn around and head back down. I could see the Greenleaf Hut in the distance, on the far side of a loop that would take me back to the trailhead. The Ridge wasn’t going to let me go home without spending some time together.
Between Little Haystack and Mount Lafayette (5.249′), the ridge snakes along for almost two miles, crossing the summit of Mount Lincoln (5,089′) in the middle. I can say, unequivocally, that it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my life. The weather conspired to give me a worry-free hike, with cool breezes keeping the temperatures comfortable and wispy clouds hanging harmlessly in the distance.
I spent more than an hour crossing the ridge before I stopped for a long rest on Lafayette, standing more than 5,200 feet in the air – almost as high as Mount Katahdin, the tallest spot in my home state of Maine.
After a solid stretch of baking, lizard-like, in the sun, I headed down (what a novel concept!) the Greenleaf Trail. Almost 500 feet above the summit of Little Haystack, I spent a lot more time on exposed rock than I had coming up, which let me savor the breeze and the scenery. A mile and a reluctant return to the woods later I arrived at Greenleaf Hut, one of the AMC’s 8 high huts in the White Mountains.
The hut was staffed by the friendly Greenleaf Croo, and their fresh Chocolate Chip and Zucchini cookies were calling my name. The hut was clean, cool and beautiful, and the free water and coffee helped me get ready for the remainder of my hike. I’d played with the idea of planning a hut-to-hut hike this season, and now I’m determined to make that a reality. The cookies weren’t necessarily the deciding factor, but the didn’t hurt.
Away from the exposed ridge and back in the woods, the heat was starting to become oppressive. Thankfully, the well-maintained Old Bridle Path made jogging easy, and I traversed the downward stretch of the loop in about half the time it took me to go up. Descending into the woods, there were a few open spots to look back up at the ridge.
When I got back to the parking lot I was surprised to find it full – while my hike up in the morning had been calm and relatively solitary, the muggy trail would now be packed with hikers. I waited for the hot air in my car to cool down and finished off the rest of my water, thankful that I’d decided to tackle the ridge when I did.